If you think we’re past the season for prime bass action, you’ve never been to St. Bernard Parish’s Lake Lery in April.
Floridians have Lake Okeechobee.Georgians have Lake Seminole. Alabamians have Lake Eufaula.
Louisianians, well, they have Lake Lery. Besides the big largemouth these bodies of water are known to give up, what all of these lakes have in common are the large, imposing grass mats that show up in the spring and remain until the cold air of winter knocks them back.
In early spring, however, the mats of grass are newly emergent, with new growth sprouting up where once nothing but oxygen-depleted dead grass resided.
This new grass plays a pivotal role on these lakes, especially in early spring, when the bass are entering a post-spawn pattern.
Here, on Lake Lery, a bowl-shaped lake that features shallow water, a plethora of canals and plentiful mats of milfoil, anglers can catch the largemouth of a lifetime this month by targeting patches of grass.
The key is to find the grass mats near clearing water.
That’s just what Covington resident Sam Swett was doing on a warm morning last year, when the water beneath his soft-plastic jerkbait seemed to come alive. A largemouth in excess of 6 pounds darted from beneath a hole in a mat of milfoil and exploded on the lure so ferociously that water flew for several feet.
Swett, setting the hook, pulled the largemouth free of the grass, but the fish continued to fight mercilessly. Yet after splashing at the surface for several seconds, the chunky, yellowish-green fish was netted right at the boat.
“Lery is the best area for big fish,” said Swett. “I constantly catch both size and numbers on the lake.”
A lifelong resident of Louisiana, Swett has fished these waters for more than 25 years, dating back to when his father brought him here to catch fish. In the years since then, however, the younger Swett has become one of the most knowledgeable anglers on this lake and numerous others in the Bayou State.
It was that knowledge mixed with a whale-sized portion of skill that propelled Swett, a Team Fuji professional angler on the FLW Tour, to victory February on the Atchafalaya Basin.
Using 3/8-ounce Booyah Blade spinnerbaits in areas where clear water was predominate, he was able to catch 47 pounds, 3 ounces of bass over four days, and in the process pocketed $100,000 for the win.
For the homeboy from up the road in Covington, the victory was especially sweet, as the crowd at the weigh-in gave him a raucous applause to coronate the victory. After hoisting the trophy, he said, “I love you, Louisiana.”
He also adores his home state’s waterways and lakes, especially Lery.
Joined by a large network of canals and connected to numerous feeder lakes and tributaries, Lery is actually a fisherman’s dream: It has vegetation, structure — in the form of ditches — and plenty of big fish.
The abundant milfoil, which won’t be clearly visible until later in the month, not only helps to filter the water, but it also provides cover for largemouth as well as prey such as finger mullet, shad and crabs. But another, equally important factor that makes this a great fishery, said Swett, is the abundance of oyster and clam beds. These beds, found throughout Lery, pack tightly and provide a firm bottom, which largemouth love.
“There’s really no reason for fish to ever leave Lery,” he said.
And with a captive audience, Swett goes to work.
In April, on Lery, just as on most other Southern lakes, the fish have largely exited their spawning grounds. They are now beginning a brief resting period to regain their energy before returning to their summertime haunts.
This can be an exceedingly frustrating period for anglers, as it can often seem like the fish have shut off completely.
“April can be a really tough time,” said Swett. “But it can also be a very good time.”
What he does is look for those fish that have regained their energy and begun what he calls a second-feeding, gorging on baitfish and other forage in anticipation of summer.
“This is when topwater plays such an important role,” he said.
Lery on High Tide
Like all tidal waterways, Lery is subject to the ebbs and flows of the tide. The tide in this area leads to a fluctuation in the water level of about 1 to 1 1/2 feet. When the tide is rising, Swett looks for the fish to move up with the water, where the predators will orient along the outside edges of the newly emergent grass.
Idling around with his outboard, he moves along the grass looking for areas where the water is clearing. Once he finds the desired water-coloration, he cuts the outboard and puts the trolling motor into the water.
Typically, he starts with a topwater lure, in anticipation of catching the most active fish first. Swett’s favorite bait is the Yum Houdini Shad, a soft-plastic jerkbait. Unlike other jerkbaits, this bait, which was designed by Swett, allows anglers to configure the tail in three different ways, depending on the desired action.
He typically slits the tail at an angle, causing it to flap as it is buzzed across the surface. He relies on several colors, including black neon and pearl white, and typically fan-casts it along the grass line in hopes of drawing a strike. Often, if a lunker is in the area, it won’t be long before the surface erupts beneath the bait.
“That’s an awesome bait,” said Swett. “I guarantee you.”
After he works along the grass, Swett will then move his boat right onto the grass line, where he begins to throw the Houdini Shad close to the shore and works it back across the grass. This is a great technique for catching those fish that may be buried in the grass.
Frequently, largemouth will corral shad and other baitfish along these areas, and a soft-plastic jerkbait is just the lure to get them out, he said, as the baits will not foul in the grass just below the surface.
Other baits he likes to use in this situation include the Rebel Pop-R and the Heddon Super Spook Jr. The Pop-R, a staple for topwater anglers, is the perfect representation of an injured shad. The Super Spook Jr., famous for its walking action, draws vicious strikes, even from largely lethargic fish.
Additionally, Swett said that when the tide is rising to keep an eye out for any surface activity. He said shad can often be seen flickering along the surface. When he sees this, either the Pop-R, Super Spook or Houdini Shad is cast in the direction.
Lery on Low Tide
During low tide, Swett’s approach is entirely different. Instead of focusing only on the grass, he’s also focused on the canals that have grass lining them. As any map will clearly show, Lery’s outer edges are perforated with canals, which aid in bringing water into and out of the lake. They also serve as areas where boats enter and exit the lake.
When the tide is going out, the largemouth are likely to situate themselves along the grass on the outside edges of the canal, said Swett. As the water sweeps across the grass, it causes the grass to lean over or lay down, he said, forming the ideal location for fish to hide in anticipation of an easy meal flowing by.
“This makes an excellent ambush point,” he said.
He situates his boat on the downstream side of the current, then casts along the grass, pulling his lure right up to the high-percentage locations. His favorite bait in this situation is the Booyah Blade spinnerbait, the same lure he used to win in the Atchafalaya Basin. But he also uses buzz baits and topwaters, including the Houdini Shad, the Super Spook Jr. and the Pop-R.
On most occasions, however, he starts off by casting a ¼- or 3/8-ounce white/chartreuse shad or chartreuse shad Booyah buzz bait right along the grass.
“These baits have a clacker for additional noise,” said Swett. “And in Lery’s tannic-stained water, noise is very important.”
If the buzz bait fails to draw a strike, he’ll go to the Booyah Blade spinnerbait. He mainly sticks to 1/4-, 3/8- and 1/2-ounce spinnerbaits in snow white or white/chartreuse, but Swett will vary the blade configurations. In heavily stained water he’ll go to two Colorado blades, with a silver blade in front and a gold blade in back. In clear water, he prefers tandem willow blades.
“You just cast that spinnerbait along the edges and let it tick the edge of the grass, and many times when you pull it free (a fish) will just nail it,” he said.
On this day, however, Swett trolls Lery looking for any surface activity. As the sun beats down on the western shore, a small alligator suns itself along the bank, oblivious to Swett’s big Ranger passing by.
But while everyone else is focused on the reptile, Swett, observant as ever, is paying close attention to the buck bass cruising the shoreline, dimpling the surface as they chase mullet and shad.
“There are bass everywhere in here,” said Swett. “There has to be a good one in here somewhere.”
Overall, the lake is mirror-smooth, highlighting just how serene the setting can be. The winds are mild out of the southeast, and there’s nary a cloud in the sky. Louisiana has some extraordinary fisheries, but this lake has to be right up there with the best of them.
The grass on the lake on this day, he said, is far thicker than it will be in April. But there are still subtle hints that an angler can use from seeing the lake in summer, said Swett.
In late April, the water will be rapidly warming, an occurrence that will lead to the topwater bite tapering off by mid-day, just as in summer. This warming water will also prompt the milfoil to grow even more rapidly.
When this occurs, Swett said it is time to pick up the flipping stick and start dropping jigs and big worms into the holes of the grass.
Using a Pflueger President reel and an All Star flipping stick, he flips ¼- to ½-ounce black/blue or black/red Booyah Boo Jigs on top of the grass, which is now usually just below the surface. He tips the jig with a matching Yum Chunk.
It may seem that working a jig over the top of the grass would be an odd way to work this cover, but seeing the fish Swett pulls from this milfoil, it’s hard to argue with success.
Another lure the fish will hammer in this grass is a 10-inch worm. Anglers can swim it over the grass, allowing the bait’s tail to flutter as it is reeled in, then “kill” the bait over any holes in the grass.
What Swett absolutely loves to do is take a 10-inch Yum Ribbontail worm in the red shad color, rig it with a 3/0 Excalibur Tx3 wide-gap worm hook and a 1/8- to ¼-ounce Excalibur Tg tungsten bullet weight, and just fan-cast it across the grass.
He keeps his rod tip high while slowly reeling the Texas-rigged bait back to the boat. Basically, he’s just swimming the worm along, but every once in a while, the bait gets intercepted by a largemouth that has other plans.
“Good fish! Good fish!” yells Swett, his pole bent like a parabola under the weight of a 4-pound largemouth that nailed a junebug-colored 10-inch Yum Ribbontail worm.
Before the day was done, Swett would catch more than 10 fish, with the best five going better than 20 pounds total. Not bad for a hot summer day.
April, however, is even better, he said. Besides the weather being milder, the fish can often be found in a more aggressive mood. The key is to look for active feeders in high-percentage locations. When the tide is going out, that means spinnerbaits, buzz baits and topwaters along the grass lining the edges of the numerous canals. When the tide is coming in, work soft-plastic jerkbaits and topwaters over emergent grass along the shoreline.
Most important of all, said Swett, is to remember that this is the time when covering as much water as possible is vital, since these post-spawners are likely to be scattered throughout the lake.
“They could be anywhere,” he said, with his classic Bayou drawl. “Just drop the trolling motor, and start casting.”